Archive for May, 2014

May 29, 2014

Anita Nair, Idris: Keeper of the Light

Another book that I really wanted to be able to champion but ended up being very disappointed by. It’s about a jewel-eyed man named Idris, so I feel like I have exercised great restraint in not illustrating this post with a picture of Mr Elba as Heimdall.

I have a short review of the book in this past weekend’s edition of The Hindustan Times (and below).

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The most fascinating histories, to me, are the ones that situate India in a wider world, full of comings and goings and trade and shared knowledge and culture clashes long before most of the territories involved in these exchanges became part of one or the other European empire. Received history, having a lot of ground to cover, tends to skim over these stories; it’s left to those of us who love them either to do a lot of research or to look to historical fiction.

Anita Nair’s Idris: Keeper of the Light seems at first to offer exactly this kind of history. Idris Maymoon Samataar Guleed is a wanderer and trader from 17th Century Dikhil (in modern day Djibouti) who, on a visit to India, has a brief liason with a young woman. Twelve years later he returns to the country and by chance meets a boy he knows to be his son. Charged with distracting the boy from joining a group of assassins, Idris takes him instead on a journey across coastal India by land and by sea.

By far the best thing about the book is Idris’s developing relationship with his son Kandavar, treading carefully between truth and untruth in order to keep Kandavar and his mother safe. Kandavar is intended for the central character of Nair’s projected trilogy, though he’s rather sidelined here in favour of his father.

But for a book rooted in such a fascinating period, Idris makes little of its setting. Issues of caste and religion affect the relationships between characters, but in a rather perfunctory way. A narrator who is both a traveller and an outsider, Idris is able to drift from set piece to set piece (a kalari on the bank of the Nila, pearl fishing in Thoothukudi, the diamond mines in Golkonda) without any real engagement with the historical realities of place and time. There is much to be made of this moment in history, at the beginning of empire. For all the use the book makes of it, it’s unclear why this story needed to be set in this time and place at all.

Idris’ outsider-status isn’t merely due to his being a foreigner, and one of a different race. A multilingual scholar and amateur astrologer with a jewelled eye, as the book presents him, he alone is exempt from the religious and cultural prejudices of everyone he meets. The other characters all seem willing to accept the book’s assumption of his specialness—frequently when Idris is introduced to a new character the perspective shifts so that we can see said new character dwelling on how they are drawn to Idris’ obvious wisdom, beauty and nobility (and superior height).

Everything about Idris: Keeper of the Light makes it seem exactly the sort of thing one wants to see; beautifully produced (the maps drawn on the endpapers are particularly gorgeous), with its vision of a fascinating, cosmopolitan past. The book this could have been makes the book that it is even more of a disappointment.

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May 24, 2014

Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon

I saw quite a bit of discussion of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon in the weeks before I read it myself. Most of the discussion consisted of reviewers being terribly impressed by the fact that it was set in Nigeria—often to the exclusion of all else that might conceivably be said about it. Naturally I decided that when I wrote about it I would barely mention this fact and I think I’ve mostly done that here. Lagos is integral to this story, but there are far more interesting things to say about the book (and hopefully I have said some of them) than that it is set in a different country to most mainstream SF.

Having said which, I don’t think one can entirely ignore its non-UK, non-USness, when this is something of which the book itself is very aware. More than once, we have the characters stopping to reflect how weird it is that this should happen here. I suppose that’s inevitable, and I think at one point it would have disappointed me a little, but—as I said some weeks ago, I recently read Deji Bryce Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space and I’ve been thinking a lot as a result about the question of what groups of people are able to imagine science fiction (or science fact) in particular ways. And perhaps it’s because that is currently at
the forefront of my mind, but the fact that Lagoon’s characters know what international pop culture has to say about alien visitation stories and where they occur began to feel necessary. In a longer piece, I think I’d have had to talk about this, regardless of my original noble ambitions.

From last week’s column.

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The smallest creatures seem to be having the worst time of it in Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon. Aliens have landed off the coast by Lagos, bringing with them all manner of change. Marine creatures morph into weirder, deadlier versions of themselves; figures from myth take physical form, the roads themselves rise up and attack travellers. But in the midst of all these changes the real sufferers seem to be the bats; at least thrice during the course of the novel the chaos that follows the arrival of these mysterious strangers causes bats (along with birds) to fall out of the sky, be hit by aeroplanes, to generally be swept away in the larger
events taking place around them, often after a brief moment of expanded consciousness. The chaos that follows change can be cruel.

And chaos is exactly what you’d expect following an alien invasion. Lagoon follows three main characters; Adaora, a marine biologist and the closest thing this polyphonic novel has to a protagonist; Agu, a wounded soldier; and Anthony, a Ghanaian rapper, all three strangers from different backgrounds with some unusual talents in common. (It’s tempting to read what follows as the greatest Amar Akbar Anthony tribute ever written, though for all I know Okorafor may never have heard of the film). Okorafor doesn’t follow that (always impressive, but not particularly original) city novel trope of having the three plotlines weave in and out of each other occasionally intersecting—though the narrative voice skips from one character to the other, their plot is broadly the same one. But it’s far from being the only plot here; the novel leaps from minor character to minor character, from visiting Nigerian-American teenager to cross-dressing would-be-kidnapper, orphaned child to head of state, puzzled and angry swordfish to mythical being to anthropomorphised land to overconfident spider. It’s not a technique that is conducive to character development, but this is hardly the point. The result of all of these intersecting lives is to offer up a world of overlapping layers, a city made up of competing and contradictory voices. There’s even a multiplicity of genres and languages, as Okorafor invokes pop culture, myth, science fiction and fantasy in a variety of voices, has her characters shift between Standard and Pidgin English. It’s a real city, and a chaos that is familiar, and fertile, and intimidating.

Chaos is also the result when the news of aliens among them leaks to the inhabitants of Lagos through the mechanisms of word of mouth, social media and cameraphone. It’s a world that is immediately recognisable particularly to those of us who expect the internet to be with us constantly, a sea of information that in itself resists the shape of linear narrative. And it results in a complete overthrow of order; in the carnivalesque scenes in the middle sections of the book religious groups, LGBT activists, aspiring criminals, rap music fans and (therefore) street food sellers gather outside the house where our three main characters and their alien friend have taken shelter.

Early in the novel, as a small boy watches the woman from another world walk out onto the beach, he welcomes her arrival—understanding that “things around him were about to change forever” and that change could only be an improvement. He’s wrong; for him this is not necessarily the case. The breakdown of order is opportunity, but it can leave the vulnerable even more so (just ask the bats). Yet the world we’re left with at the end of the novel is one that is radically transformed, where the inhabitants of Lagos (human or otherwise) are altered forever, and the change that the aliens brought is spiralling slowly outwards to the rest of Nigeria, the rest of Africa, the rest of the world. The possibilities are endless.

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May 21, 2014

Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation

Since I read Dept. of Speculation I’ve reread this wonderful piece by Emily Rapp; if you have not yet read either I recommend reading them together because they both bring together love, loss and family, and the loss that is built into loving things because all things are lose-able, in ways that feel important. How Offill’s protagonist “remembers the first night she knew she loved him, the way the fear came rushing in”. I’m thinking too of that wonderful bit at the end of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! where Ava and Ossie are reunited and

“I’m not going anywhere,” she told me that night. But until we are old ladies—a cypress age, a Sawtooth age—I will continue to link arms with her, in public, in private, in a panic of love.

and I suppose this is an appropriate introduction to Offill’s book, which also pieces together other people’s words (often not that startling in and of themselves) and jigsaws them into things that end up meaning quite a lot to me. As is probably obvious in the piece below (from last weekend’s column) I found myself mostly quoting from and enthusing about the book—it’s hard to do much else without being more personal than I’m willing to be in public. But it mattered to me, and I suspect will continue to do so.

 

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“The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact.)”
There’s something inherently suspicious about the aphorism as a form of literature (or communication of any sort, really); if only because in real life it so easily moves into the realm of platitude.
But what is on its own trite, simplistic, generally intolerable, can be used to great effect as part of something bigger and more meaningful. And Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation, a novel told through a series of short paragraphs, aphorisms, lists, believe-it-or-not facts and quotes, does just this.
“My plan was never to get married,” says the unnamed narrator of Offill’s book. “I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things.” She writes a book, but does not become an art monster; she marries a husband who will not suborn himself to her art (“Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”), has a daughter, teaches in a university. An old acquaintance asks her why she never wrote a second book: “Did something happen?” “Yes,” she says.
Divided into two parts, in the first and third person, Dept. of Speculation tells first of the building of a life different to the one its author had planned for herself, then of the breakdown and subsequent, tentative rebuilding of that life. Of her love for her husband, who is built up in the first section of the book as perfect; kind and loving and generous in ways that are ominous to a reader who knows that it cannot last. Of her child, who is exhausting (“Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well, no, I’d say”). I spoke above of the trite, the overused. There’s nothing surprising about the characters in Dept. of Speculation; the wife and mother with her artistic dreams frustrated, the husband whose midlife crisis manifests as an affair with a younger woman, the child who is the focus of intense love. It’s the very normalcy of these emotions that Offill often deploys in their favour. Of her daughter: “There is a picture of my mother holding me as a baby, a look of naked love on her face. For years, it embarrassed me. Now there is a picture of me with my daughter looking exactly the same way.” We’re reminded that all marriages are fragile, “held together with chewing gum and wire and string”. Ovid is quoted on the subject of infidelity to remind us that this story is as old as time. People cheat on their partners, parents love their children, women’s ambitions for their careers are frustrated by the demands of family. None of the principal actors in this tragedy are named; they could be anyone.

There is a husband who requires mileage receipts, another who wants sex at three a.m. One who forbids short haircuts, another who refuses to feed the pets. I would never put up with that, all the other wives think. Never.

 

And yet we’re never allowed to think of these characters as fitting into an obvious, therefore dismissable narrative. “I am not a cartoon wife,” insists the wife. She’s not. Dept. of Speculation spirals in- and outward between the very individual and the cosmic. A recurring motif is that of Carl Sagan and his “cosmic” love story (“because who can resist the urge to say silly things about Carl Sagan?”); a love story that also included the mundaneness of cheating on his wife.* Here, when the wife finds out about her husband’s infidelity the universe itself is thrown off balance.

 In the year 134 B.C., Hipparchus observed a new star. Until that moment he had believed steadfastly in the permanence of them. He then set out to catalog all the principal stars so as to know if any others appeared or disappear.

[…]

His eyes, god, his eyes, in the moment before he nodded his head.

Thales supposed the Earth to be flat and to float upon water.

 Anaxagoras thought the moon was an inhabited Earth.

 

It works in part because it’s so pared down. The novel is stripped of everything that is dispensable. You could make a case for it as poetry.
Earlier in the book the narrator sees in passing a vision of some disaster that sweeps the world, something “distant and imperfectly understood” that threatens everything that is good and vulnerable. “I won’t be happy until I know the name of this thing,” she says, and we never do find out its name but we know by the end what it is. It’s an unhappiness that stalks all happiness, a brokenness that is built into every love. It’s “how unbearable it is that things keep breaking, that you can never fucking outrun entropy.” It’s love that is hopeless, and tired, and doomed.

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*I don’t know anything about Sagan’s personal life, so am basing this on Offill’s book.

May 13, 2014

Joanne M Harris, The Gospel of Loki

I wanted this to be so much better than it was. Reviewed for TSG.
Meanwhile, my ongoing love affair with parentheses has reached the point where I have now begun a review with one.

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(Very) broadly speaking there are a couple of different forms that mythical retellings take. The first of these is simply to educate; for children (or adults) who have not learnt these stories, or this particular set of myths, from story-loving grandparents or however else this sort of thing is passed on from one generation to another. You might call this the Amar Chitra Katha model; there’s a famous story that Anant Pai started the series because he was shocked to discover Indian children who knew more about Greek or Roman mythology than about myths born on the subcontinent. Retellings of this sort tend towards the uncontroversial; a universally accepted version of the stories that doesn’t offend anyone (or anyone with the numbers or clout to have it stopped).

At the other end of the spectrum is the retelling that assumes its audience to already be familiar with the broad outline of the story (possibly through reading the sort of basic mythology above) and uses this assumption as an excuse to explore, tease out nuance, be provocative. It refers not just to the myth itself but to the centuries of meaning that have been added to it; uses the weight of its original story in its favour. To rewrite myth is to start off with really powerful tools.

Joanne Harris’ The Gospel of Loki is in a rather strange position, in this respect. On the one hand, the Norse myths are still less universally known than the Greek or Roman, and there’s probably an argument to be made for straight retellings of the myth, even at a time when certain Marvel comics-based movies have made one form of these characters particularly popular. Harris has written two young adult novels set in the aftermath of Ragnarok (The Gospel of Loki narrates the events leading up to it); it’s clear that she has clearly embedded herself deeply in these stories, but also that she’s willing to play with them.

And Harris chooses Loki for her narrator.

In Loki, Harris has the ultimate in unreliable narrators. Loki is a trickster god, the father (and mother) of lies, as he reminds us in the foreword; he is wildfire, a being born of chaos. To choose him to tell a story is a brave choice, and opens up almost unlimited possibilities for what can be done with the narrative, even when, with this myth more than most, the ending is so constantly present, and so inevitable.

There’s playfulness and some deliberate subversion in the title; early on Loki speaks of the religion that would, “five hundred years later or so, […] supplant us; not through war, but through books and stories and words” and it’s tempting to see in this a suggestion that this religious future has affected this book, this story, these words. The gospel (literally “good news”, but so embedded in its Christian context that it’s all but inextricable) of Loki, the father of lies. In his early descriptions of himself Loki often stresses the connection with Lucifer (Harris is, of course, far from being the first writer to make that connection), even calling himself “Light-Bringer”. A scattered reference to Pandaemonium (a name invented, of course, in another great mythic retelling), a narrator who swears by Gog and Magog, the lovely, stained glass-effect cover. But then we’re told that The Gospel of Loki is a rough translation of Lokabrenna; “bręnna”, it turns out, is “to burn”. There’s so much going on here; enlightenment and lies and destruction and religious truth all wrapped up in two alternate titles.  It’s enough to make you expect great things.

Yet, what we get is disappointingly tame. Each chapter of the first section begins with a warning against trust (“Never trust a ruminant”, “Never trust a lover”, “Basically, never trust anyone”). The Father of Lies turns out to be surprisingly trustworthy; barring one or two incidents in which he lies only to explain the lie a few pages later, Loki’s version of events isn’t really that different from what he describes as the “authorised” version.

“there was something magnificent in the Old Man; something noble and melancholy that might almost have touched my heart.” One of the things that most appeals about the Norse myths is the vastness and doomed-ness of them. I love them for it, but it’s tempting also to puncture that sense of importance, possibly by highlighting the sillier portions of the myths, or simply by adopting an irreverent tone. Loki is mostly petulant here, and often with good reason, but his flippant accounts of the residents of Asgard are often excellent—I’m particularly fond of a throwaway description of teenagers (human and werewolf) which includes the phrase “buttock sandwich”. There are dutiful references to that one time Thor had to dress in women’s clothes and that other time Loki had sex with a stallion and gave birth to a foal of his own. Yet it’s still more pleasantly scandalous than transgressive.

There’s a place for safe-but-slightly-irreverent retellings, and perhaps to be disappointed in this book for not being more than what it is is unfair. But The Gospel of Loki repeatedly insists on the power that stories have, on how they shape worlds and destinies. “Words are the building blocks of Worlds; words and runes and names”, we’re told, and elsewhere:

Words can shatter faith; start a war; change the course of history. A story can make your heart beat faster; topple walls; scale mountains – hey, a story can even raise the dead. And that’s why the King of Stories ended up being King of the gods; because writing history and making history are only the breadth of a page apart.

We’re told of the transformative power of myth, we’re given a narrator who is born out of the same chaos as the words he wields. High expectations only seem fair.

Perhaps there’s another clue in that title, Lokabrenna. It’s almost as if The Gospel of Loki were setting itself up to crash and burn.

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It’s also worth reading Liz Bourke’s review here; Liz also initiated a discussion elsewhere on the meaning of “Lokabrenna” that made me look for more information, and that influenced how I read it here.
May 12, 2014

Bulletpoints: Transcendence

Transcendence, dir. Wally Pfister. Spoilers, obviously.

I’m aware even as I write this that it’s rather pointless; by now this movie is widely understood to be quite bad, and my writing many words about it being quite bad isn’t really adding anything to the world. Only my baffled love for Bettany and Hall spurs me on.

 

  • The important thing about Transcendence, I think, is that someone clearly set out to make a movie based on some sort of venn diagram of my interests. Do I like science fiction? Yes I do! Do I like Rebecca Hall? I think she is perfect. Do I like Cillian Murphy? Very much. Paul Bettany? Paul Bettany in GLASSES? Etc. Perhaps I should have spent less time squeeing about attractive people on the internet and more on pointing out that I also like films to be good. This one wasn’t.
  • Hidden somewhere in Transcendence is a far better film, and one that has Paul Bettany’s character Max Waters at its centre. Waters is given the film’s framing narrative, but to me this only highlights the ways in which it’s clear to me that it would be better balanced were he its protagonist. After we’d watched it Niall said something about how it would have worked in book form, and I can see this as the sort of literary SF where the dubious SF background exists to provide an occasion for the protagonist’s story; a man who found himself ranged against his best friends, who watched his world fall apart, who now mourns them. Transcendence chooses to linger on (“explore” would be the wrong word) the details of how and why its world fell apart, and … it’s a bit embarrassing when it does.
  • At one point Cillian Murphy says “*dramatic pause* We’ll have to shut down the internet.” I wonder if the actor laughed a bitter laugh, or just made a face and went with it, or.
  • And yet some of Transcendence’s characters, and some of its relationships, are ambitious. The huge, doomed love of the Casters—Will is martyred For Science, Evelyn is unable to accept his inevitable death and does big, foolish things to keep him, until the two realise this is impossible and choose to die in each other’s arms. These aren’t the emotions of real people, but they might have worked in a Greek tragedy. Max’s love for his friends (and also his almost courtly love for Evelyn) also feels like it belongs to a literary or dramatic tradition, rather than any mundane SFnal (and it has to be okay to use those words together in some situations) world.
  • Early in the film Depp’s Will Caster is about to give some sort of TED talk and a young woman comes up to him and asks him for his autograph. Max complains that he does not have groupies (I will be your groupie, Paul Bettany! I cried silently from my seat. Nic may have been doing something similar). It’s gratifying later in the movie to find that Bree (Kate Mara) and her band of anti-technology “terrorists”, RIFT, often gather to discuss Max’s work.
  • Bree’s commitment to eyeliner while camping out in the desert, on the run from the law and hiding from any technology, is admirable.
  • A fun exercise might be to watch Transcendence and watch the trailer for Luc Besson’s Lucy (or the film itself, when it comes out in a few months) and try to work out to what extent Morgan Freeman’s roles in them are interchangeable. He seems to be at a phase in his career where his characters are acknowledged as wise and important but otherwise ignored, and in the actual plot reduced to shaking their heads slowly in slow horror at what humanity has done now. Perhaps his role in Lucy will surprise me? (And perhaps that film will turn out to be about more than Scarlett Johansson killing brown guys?) At least his character in Transcendence stays alive.
  • He comes close, though. Almost all of the staff at Dr Joseph Tagger’s lab celebrate a colleague’s birthday; Tagger (Freeman) alone sits at his desk, working, with a slice of very chocolatey cake next to him. When he next looks up, many of his colleagues are dead. The cake had been poisoned by terrorists. This is brilliant because it’s the worst plot ever (THE CAKE. WAS POISONED. BY TERRORISTS.) but also because it may be the only time I’ve read or seen any sort of fictional disaster, natural or man-made, and come out of it thinking “perhaps I could survive that”. I am not a fan of chocolate cake.
  • The dialogue in this film could easily have been written by aliens. It’s an understanding of what people sound like that is inaccurate, but it’s the inaccuracy of a complete outsider observing something utterly foreign. It’s rather fascinating.
  • “They claim to be defending humanity … but they kill people!” (I’m paraphrasing) says Will, profoundly. “That’s not logical!”
  • The last thing in which I saw Rebecca Hall was the often-very-good Iron Man 3, which did at least pass the Bechdel test. In IM3, she plays Maya Hansen, a brilliant scientist whose work Tony Stark is able to improve upon, who makes some terrible decisions, repents of them, and dies trying to fix the damage she’s caused. In Transcendence she plays Evelyn Caster, a brilliant scientist whose work is subordinate to that of her brilliant scientist husband , who makes some terrible decisions and causes massive, world-changing problems, and dies trying to fix the damage etc.
  • I think what irritates me most is that it would be so easy for this film to be about a completely different woman and scientist. It’s established for us at the beginning that Evelyn’s the one who deals with the social things, like placating investors and wearing appropriate clothing. Soft skills—Will, on the other hand, can barely dress himself, and exclusively does Science when he’s not signing autographs or appearing on the cover of Wired. Evelyn gives introductory speeches about her husband’s work; Will is the main act. And so the movie establishes her as helpmeet rather than partner and equal.
  • When Will finds out he’s dying, he only wants to spend his remaining time with his wife. Evelyn hardly spends this time with him—she’s convinced she can solve the problem with science. Between then she and Max achieve something amazing, yet the role into which the movie has already placed Evelyn makes it easier for us to read this as the obsessive, over-emotional behaviour of a wife who refuses to accept reality (she won’t simply accept Max’s opinions) than those of a scientist obsessed with her work, turning to her understanding of science to solve a problem and as a result doing things no one has achieved before. All her subsequent actions are framed as deluded or brainwashed; as if she’s so wrapped up in her newly-returned (or is he?) husband that she simply isn’t noticing the huge events taking place around her.
  • So imagine a different film, built upon what Transcendence says about Evelyn rather than what it does. In which she turns to science to solve her problems not out of an inability to face reality, but because she’s good at science and believes in its ability to fix things. In which she knows exactly what she’s doing when she builds an underground lab in the desert, in which the thing that may or may not be Will Caster is focused on healing the environment because Evelyn built it and these are Evelyn’s priorities. In which her huge mistake isn’t the result of disproportionate love but of hubris. It would still BE a huge mistake, but one of those motives is more culturally respected (and I’m not sure it should be) than the other.
  • Almost everything that Subashsini says here, because she’s right and wonderful.
  • I do think, though, that it’s interesting that Evelyn’s dawning realisation that everything is horribly wrong is framed in terms of her own bodily integrity. The first time she seems to see that something is wrong is when “Will” appropriates the body of a man he has healed; someone she barely knows approaches her, saying in her husband’s voice “I can touch you now!” Later, she finds out that “Will” is monitoring her to the point of even keeping track of her hormones (the all-seeing husband, as Suba says) and it’s a violation too far. “You’re not allowed”, she says, and it works as a line because it’s filled with that sort of childish incomprehension at this exertion of power. It’s here that she leaves, and I think this is the point at which stopping “Will” becomes something that she’s capable of considering.
  • I make the distinction between Will and “Will” because for much of the film (including, I’d argue, the end) it’s not clear that they are the same thing. The film makes more of this question than necessary—considering that, as Tagger says at one point, even if it was Will, he’s evolved so far so quickly that the question is moot.
  • Speaking of violations of bodily integrity. The first instance of “Will” healing-then-taking-over another body is one in which consent for his continued infestation is not given—it’s an emergency, as is the other instance of his healing someone. What about the other people lining up to be healed? I think it’s interesting (particularly with regards to, again, Suba’s post and what it says about collectivity) that we aren’t told.
  • I’ve just used the word “infestation”. I think there’s a moment where the movie suggests that “it” (“Will”) is building a nest of sorts underground. For something apparently highly evolved beyond humans, I find the film’s ways of talking about “Will” interestingly basic. Nest. Control. Protect.
  • It is a very pretty film, though.
May 8, 2014

Manil Suri, City of Devi

A few years ago I read “The Screwfly Solution” in the middle of what felt like an epidemic of random, violent attacks on women (it is possible that it was just the normal amount of violence against women, at a period when the media was particularly keen to report it. And that possibility is scary too.) and it was terrifying. I didn’t think [spoiler?] that aliens were orchestrating the end of our species, but something of the horror of the book echoed off the horror of the real world and made both worse. Something of the sort happened to me with Manil Suri’s latest, particularly since I haven’t been able to go online in months without being immersed in worrying (and very shouty) news. I’m not sure any book should have to shoulder the weight of the world in this way, but it did rather wish it upon itself.

From this week’s column.

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Perhaps the middle of India’s elections was not the best time to read a book in which the election of a right-wing religious party sets off a series of events that rapidly lead to impending nuclear war.

“Four days before the bomb that is supposed to obliterate Bombay and kill us all,” Sarita haggles over the cost of a pomegranate in Crawford Market. Her family, along with much of the city’s population, has fled the city. Sarita alone stays, waiting for her husband Karun, who has disappeared.

There’s a lot going on in Manil Suri’s City of Devi; probably more than there needs to be. It is part of a thematic trilogy (though the author has hinted that there may be a fourth book) with Suri’s earlier books The Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva. Trinities are invoked many times in the book, though often through the characters’ musing upon them in a way that is neither particularly subtle nor profound. It’s the weakest aspect of a book that has a lot more to recommend it.

The love stories, for one. City of Devi has two alternating narrators, Sarita and Jaz (Ijaz), both of whom are in love with the same man and who find themselves becoming allies in the attempt to find him and to escape the city. It would be easy enough simply to read this set of relationships as a cliché of Indian family life—the gay man unable to come out, the bewildered wife married as a smokescreen, the secret lover (doubly scandalous because of another religion!) on the side. It’s to Suri’s credit that he makes more of them than this. Jaz is profoundly irritating (must he call himself “the Jazter?”) and his courtship of Karun is often comical (“’Jai Hind,’ he declared. ‘What?’ I had been given the brush-off before, but never with a patriotic slogan.”) but these are human failings. Sarita and Karun do build something between them, even if that something is fragile and unconventional and features the worst euphemism for sex that you will hear this month; she’s never just the poor, deluded wife.

At one point, as she documents the violent political changes taking place around her, Sarita is able to claim that she was too caught up in her personal life to really pay attention. Which explains why she is able to stand in the middle of a market after a bomb blast and worry about the cost of the pomegranate that becomes a talisman of sorts for their relationship.

It’s rather pointless to argue whether Suri’s near-future, communalism-flavoured nuclear apocalypse is plausible, though watching or reading the news it can easily feel that way. Religious mobs roam the streets within carefully-maintained borders; in a darkly comic interlude a man is nearly hanged when mistaken for a Muslim, but saved at the last minute when they pull his pants down. Legislation has decreed that cartoon characters can only have proper Hindu names, so that Donald Duck lives on as Bimal Batak. The whole country is obsessed with Superdevi, star of a superhero film and the perfect mix of religion, commercialism and pop culture.

Jaz and Sarita’s journey through this landscape can often get tedious, with message overriding all other concerns of setting. But the early scenes of the novel are a thing of beauty. Perhaps there’s something inherently compelling about not moving, about staying in one place, waiting for the end, being certain of doom. There’s a feeling almost of hyperreality about this section of the novel—the deserted aquarium with most of its fish eaten by a security guard, the empty street down which Sarita runs to retrieve her pomegranate. Normal rules are in abeyance, and the motivations of ordinary people aren’t what you expect them to be. And perhaps it’s simply the eeriness of seeing Bombay, of all cities, almost empty.

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Unrelated to anything, but there’s a weird, unlikely resonance between the opening scenes of this novel and those of Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. Tropical fruits haggled over in the heat-ravaged Asian cities of the future. The similarities between the books end there, but I wonder if, as mainstream SF moves into newer settings, this is a scene we’re going to see repeated.
May 6, 2014

April Reading (and recent movies)

Things I read this last month:

 

Deji Bryce Olukotun, Nigerians in Space: I’m reviewing this elsewhere, but I’d love more people to read it and for there to be a larger conversation about it, particularly among science fiction fans, for whom the question of who can imagine the future and in what terms has felt particularly relevant recently.

 

Phillip Mann, The Disestablishment of Paradise: I’d read two of the books on the Clarke Award shortlist, and thought it would be a good idea to read the other four. This was one of the weaker books on the list, full of gender essentialism and uncomfortable prose. I’d have liked it to be a lot better than it was.

 

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice: Also on the Clarke shortlist, and the eventual winner. I’d have had to read this eventually, but I wish I’d come to it earlier. It’s good, and I enjoyed it, but after months of hearing about how revolutionary it was in its approach to gender and to colonialism, I found myself looking for more than I found.

 

Christopher Priest, The Adjacent: This was certainly a Christopher Priest book. Not my favourite of his work (but still good); I may have done it an injustice by rushing through it in time for the award to be announced. I’d like to come back to it at some point. For now: if you’re an alternate-history Islamic republic, why are you italicising “burqa”?

 

Ramez Naam, Nexus: I could probably have dealt with the lazy gender and race stereotypes, the dubious science, the accidental (lol, whoops!) sexual assault at the beginning, and the army of Chinese clones who all look alike (no really) if there had been any basic competence to the text itself. Nexus isn’t a bad novel, it’s a novel that has no conception of what narrative prose does. Also everything Dan Hartland says here; his disgust heals my own.

 

Karen Russell, Sleep Donation: I think I may need a reread of this before any proper commentary can happen. It’s very Karen Russell, which is a good thing.

 

Anita Nair, Idris, Keeper of the Light: Historical fiction set in coastal India pre-British rule, from the perspective of a traveller from Africa? I really wanted this to be good. I was disappointed. A review should be published in The Hindustan Times in the near future.

 

Dorothea Moore, A Runaway Princess or H.R.H. Smith at School, Brenda of Beech House: Is there an entire subgenre of school stories in which Ruritanian royals go to boarding school after reading many school stories? EBD’s The Princess of the Chalet School is still the best of these, but I did like the two Moore stories (particularly Brenda).

Evelyn Smith, The Small Sixth Form: I assumed from the title that this was a sequel to The First Fifth Form, which I read last year and enjoyed. It was not a sequel, but it was great anyway. Some of Robin’s early exchanges with her new classmates have an almost Vance-ish feel to them, the sensible, straight-thinking newcomer facing an onslaught of wit and fancy and wordplay. As the book progresses it settles down into a more ordinary (and still very good) school story, but those earlier scenes are unlike anything I’ve read in the genre, and they’re wonderful.

 

M.C. Beaton, Agatha Raisin and the Wizard of Evesham: The kindle edition was cheap. I’m not a huge fan of this series—I like that Agatha’s an unlikeable middle-aged woman, but that’s really the only thing about them that really appeals to me, and it makes it hard to see them as more than a vaguely pleasant distraction on an evening off.

 

Suniti Namjoshi, The Mothers of Maya Diip: I wrote about this here.

 

Manil Suri, City of Devi: I did a column on this, and it will be on the blog soon.

 

And because I’ve been doing such a terrible job of writing about movies, here (very briefly) are some things I’ve watched over the last couple of months also:

 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: I kept thinking I’d write about this at length and now it’s been out ages and I’m not sure I have anything new to say. It is good? And comes a little too close to undermining its own premises? And made me feel things? I have thoughts about its portrayal of Black Widow that probably do need addressing at some point.

 

Under the Skin: Gorgeous, with one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a while. But I’m reading the book and I have some reservations about the directions this adaptation chose to take, both in regard to the gendering of its protagonist and in its refusal to provide me visuals of space llamas with prehensile tails. I will be writing about it at length eventually. Someday. Probably.

 

Only Lovers Left Alive: Lovely and funny and dark and quiet and beautiful. There was wine, and it made me giggly, but I think I’d have laughed through this anyway. I’d like to watch it again before attempting any further thought, though.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel: As tends to happen to me with Wes Anderson films I loved every moment of this while I was watching it, immediately ceased to have feelings about it once I’d left the theatre, and subsequently missed the large quantities of online conversation about it and I am okay with this.

 

A Story of Children and Film: This was lovely; Mark Cousins having thoughts on children in film, tied (loosely) together by his own niece and nephew and their reaction to the camera. As with all such collections (or canons, though I don’t think Cousins is trying to do that) there was a certain amount of indignant “but what about?” on behalf of things one loved that had been left out. But it was smart, and charming and I don’t even mind that much that it left most of my anarchic school story films out.

 

Transcendence: I’ll be writing more about this. It was mostly very bad, redeemed only by the prettiness of its cinematography and of many of its actors.

 

300: Rise of an Empire: The film in which we discover that the evil camp brown people from the first movie a) hate us for our freedom (“us” because I don’t think it ever imagines that a “them” would be watching) b) are not smart enough to be a threat unless led by an evil white person. Said EWP is Eva Green, whose backstory is one of rape and sworn vengeance and who wears a lot of leather in her quest for said vengeance. It is not a movie with many redeeming qualities. It is quite pretty, I suppose. At one point during a battle at sea a horse gallops from one barge to another. And there is the least sexy sex scene any of us had ever seen. And Eva Green dies just as Lena Headey boards the ship on which she is, so that not only is there no chance of this movie ever passing the Bechdel test (hollow laugh), but it almost feels as if that fact is being thrown in the audience’s face.

 

Drinking Buddies: Pleasant, and Olivia Wilde’s face is very nice, and she and guy-from-New-Girl turned me into my father and I spent much of the film wondering if it was really so hard to comb your hair and make your bed.

 

Super 8: I realise I was supposed to be thinking about E.T., but I was thinking about Home Movies instead and that made it better. This is very much a Spielberg tribute movie, and it comes with all the flaws of such a thing, but it (and its film-within-a-film) made me happy.

 

We Are The Best: I WATCHED THIS TODAY AND I WANT TO ADOPT EVERYONE.

 

 

May 3, 2014

Suniti Namjoshi, The Mothers of Maya Diip

For context, here is a short review from last year of The Fabulous Feminist. I’ll be doing a longer (and therefore better) piece on The Mothers of Maya Diip at some point. A shorter version exists in my notes, and consists entirely of the sentence “This book gives no fucks”.

It really doesn’t though.

(From this week’s column.)

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When Zubaan’s Suniti Namjoshi reader, The Fabulous Feminist, came out last year, I wasn’t sure what to make of some parts of it. The fables, for which she’s probably best known, were wonderful, but the extracts from longer works often left one adrift. Particularly fascinating to me was the chapter from the middle of The Mothers of Maya Diip, which looked a lot like a classic feminist utopia story.

Maya Nagar is a matriarchy on a remote island (presumably off the coast of India), populated only by women. Motherhood is synonymous with adulthood in this society, the raising of children (biological or otherwise) is seen as the fundamental function of an adult, and social hierarchy is based on the maternal duties one is considered qualified to perform. Into this world the Blue Donkey (who appears in some of Namjoshi’s other work as a sort of stand-in for the author) is invited for a visit. She brings with her her friend Jyanvi, who immediately falls in love with a woman from the city. Unfortunately, Jyanvi also immediately finds herself chafing at the lack of choice, the inability for a “mother” to define herself separately from children and both outsiders find themselves caught up in the machinations of state politics.

The Mothers of Maya Diip was published by the Women’s Press, which had also published a number of works of feminist science fiction, among them Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, and it’s difficult not to read it as a book that is aware of and in conversation with this tradition of writing. The utopia or dystopia is (or sometimes is, or ought to be) a novel of ideas, of taking things to their logical conclusions. The Mothers of Maya Diip moves between three fictional societies; the woman-dominated Maya Nagar, the male-majority Ashagarh, and the island of Paradise where gender hardly seems to exist. Each model is examined and found to contain some form of violence at its heart—the revelation of what happens to the boys born in Maya Nagar would by itself be enough reason to condemn that society.

But if The Mothers of Maya Diip is placing itself in that tradition, it isn’t necessarily submitting to it. There’s a sense that the book is at least one remove away from the sort of story it is telling; there’s an ironic distance that is maintained throughout. At times one gets the impression that this is itself part of Namjoshi’s response to the tradition of books in which she’s writing; and the presence of Valerie, a visitor and western feminist who explains these traditions to the Blue Donkey and Jyanvi (and who believes that Jyanvi, a lesbian, has things easier here) seems to bear this out.

If it both emulates and distances itself from feminist utopian science fiction, The Mothers of Maya Diip is willing to invoke (and discard) other genres as well. There’s something of the epic about this story, with its arcane religious ceremonies, its power struggles between priestesses and queens. We are offered not one, but two fictional, fantastic city states. At one point the Ranisaheb and her entourage are cast out of the city and exiled in a forest. There’s a bizarre science fictional interlude featuring a group of androids and a maternal helicopter. There’s even a love story, most of the time about two people who are completely incapable of understanding one another.

At the centre of it all is the Blue Donkey, sometimes treated as human and sometimes not, and devastatingly commonsensical in the face of all that is going on around her. It’s her cool detachment from the book that allows it to be as odd a thing as it is, that makes thought experiments of its genres as well as of its fictional cities.

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May 1, 2014

I have read the Clarke Award shortlist and

I thought about reviewing it in gif form, since sustained thoughts and sentences clearly weren’t going to happen, but am incapable of even that this week. So here is the whole thing reviewed* in one sentence**:

I’d be very happy if James Smythe’s The Machine or Kameron Hurley’s God’s War won; I think The Adjacent is very good; I’m not sure Ancillary Justice is great, though I enjoyed it, but I think it’s important at this particular moment (which is a completely reasonable thing for a literary prize to reward); The Disestablishment of Paradise is ecological SF about yearning and loss and has a middle-aged woman protagonist and an interesting structure and should be amazing and really, really isn’t; Nexus manages to make The Disestablishment of Paradise look good.

 

Adam Roberts has reviewed all the books on the shortlist here and here in far greater depth, and is mostly right about things. He is kinder to Nexus than I feel, and also (in a very different way) more appreciative of The Adjacent.

 

This post illustrated with the cover of The Disestablishment of Paradise because look at it.

 

 

 

*Where “reviewed” can be considered to include observations that are not reviews at all.

 

**Where “sentence” can be considered to include several sentences strung together with semi-colons.